The true story of QWERTY: who invented the keyboard layout

The classic version of the history of the appearance of the QWERTY keyboard layout is widely known. It says that one of the inventors of the typewriter, Christopher Latham Scholes, faced a technical problem when designing his mechanisms. Professional typists at work developed such a printing speed that with a quick press of several letters in a row, the levers with letters did not have time to move away from the roller with the paper and jammed. In response to constant complaints, Scholes solved this problem by placing the letters on the keyboard to slow down the typing speed as much as possible: the letters often used in combinations were located far from each other.

Some versions of this story specify that Scholes did not slow down the print speed, but simply reduced the frequency of jamming in this way, which just increased this speed.

However, according to Koichi Yasuoka, professor at the Kyoto University Institute for Humanitarian Studies, this generally accepted version does not stand up to criticism and is a myth of pure water. It is enough to look at the arrangement of letters: the most common combinations in English are th, er and re, gh, as and ty are a little less frequent, and these keys are located nearby. How was the matter really?

In a typewriter patent issued to Scholes on June 23, 1868, the inventor described a keyboard modeled on the Hughes-Phelps typing telegraph. On the two-row piano keyboard, the keys were arranged in alphabetical order (“black” - in direct, “white” - in reverse). However, the keys were not enough, and Scholes improved his design to a four-row keyboard with rows of 10 or 11 keys. The top row was used for numbers, the next for vowels (-AEI - YUO-), the rest - alphabetically - BCDFGHJKLM and ZXWVTSRQPN. After some rearrangement of the keys, the keyboard took on an almost modern look, and for the first time QWERTY featured in the August issue of Scientific American magazine for 1872. This layout was already used in the first commercial Remington No.1 model manufactured by E. Remington & Sons since 1873 (although the mechanism itself was completely different). Why did you need to rearrange the keys? It is not known for certain, but there is a version that for marketing purposes some letters had to be transferred so that the brand of typewriters (TYPEWRITER) could only be printed using the top row keys.

Where did the legend of deliberate slowdown come from? Professor Yasuoka tends to consider it a kind of "black PR". This hypothesis first appeared in an article published in 1942. Its author, August Dvorak, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, in the 1930s, having analyzed the frequency of use of various letters and two-letter combinations in English, as well as the biomechanics of finger movements, proposed a “scientific” keyboard layout that made typing faster and easier used words. However, to replace QWERTY, which by that time had become the de facto standard, Dvorak’s simplified keyboard could not.

The article “The Real History of QWERTY” was published in the journal Popular Mechanics (No. 8, August 2010).


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